By Isabele Mitozo
Over the last two decades, the web has become a facilitator for information access. Institutions, especially representative ones, have used that means to communicate with citizens. Parliaments, more specifically, have tried to improve the use of digital platforms to go further and open up the process of law construction.
The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies is a case I have studied because it started to modernise its communication with citizens a long time ago. In 1996, for example, the House already had a website called Portal da Câmara and invested in participatory tools, such as live chats with parliamentarians. More recently, in 2009, that Chamber launched an online participatory initiative named Portal E-Democracia, that is now updating its layout, where citizens can vote, discuss, and comment on laws or legislative projects that have been discussed by the Members of Parliament (MPs). Other parliaments have also focused on encouraging political participation. The UK House of Commons, for example, is a prominent case: the Modernisation Committee provided an in-depth investigation into the openness of the British Parliament in 2004, which helped to develop some actions to the digitalisation of the House.
Thinking about these cases, I started to directly compare their initiatives: more specifically the Brazilian Portal e-Democracia, the UK Digital Democracy Commission (DDC), and the debates that the House of Commons has developed through hashtags. Although those initiatives are institutional, and they were launched in different times and contexts, the dissimilarities in the process of planning and putting in practice the crowdsourcing tools make for interesting points of analysis. In Brazil, the e-Democracia has improved its tools, especially after the creation of LabHacker, a department into the Chamber of Deputies where some “hacker officials” develop online projects for post-electoral participation. However, there was not a discussion with society about that subject. By contrast, in the UK there was a consultation period to hear people about the projects the Parliament could develop to improve mechanisms for participation: the Digital Democracy Commission (a Speaker’s Commission) worked on connecting the House and citizens during the year of 2014 to debate some strategies for that. The results were published in January 2015 on a report named Open Up!, and the actions developed were checked one year after its publication, in February 2016, by the Commission according to its recommendations.
It is interesting to focus on the way those institutions put in practice the participative initiatives. In the Brazilian case, there is a concentration of debates, voting and informational outputs in one platform, Portal e-Democracia. The initiative concentrates many tools for participation in each “Legislative Community” (the section created into the portal for debating law projects with citizens): wikilegis (a tool for text editing), forums, library etc. So the Chamber can have all the messages in one place and for a while, and consequently it has a big control over what has been discussed.
On the other hand, the Commons work with the principle of promoting debates about the legislative agenda through hashtags on Twitter, so they theoretically go to where people are. The most famous hashtag is #pmqs, related to Prime Minister Questions, that people use to engage with the parliamentary session sending questions. However, it is not clear to citizens how (or if) Parliament collect those messages to consider their content in legislative debates. So we can question of the institution is really opening its processes to people.
However, we may think about pros and cons of both initiatives as well as questioning their efficiency. Even though the Brazilian practice can moderate the forums, it rarely happens and the comments remain available on the portal after the forum has finished. On the other hand, the UK use of Twitter can miss something because of the volume of messages as well as the difficulty of unifying a hashtag, i.e. expecting that people will interact using only the promoted hashtag when they can create their own. An example of this is the “Housing Bill” case. The hashtag promoted by the public (#ukhousing) was mentioned in more than 4,000 tweets, and the official one (#housingbill) from the House of Commons profile was used only in 41 posts. It can point to a lack of credibility on parliamentary actions for participation, maybe because there is no feedback about it after the discussions, and Parliament does not monitor the other hashtags.
A positive point is that both parliaments have created teams proud to deal with the new digital demands. This shows that parliaments are working on online mechanisms to reduce the distance as well as the feeling of underrepresentation in relation to the civil sphere. They clearly still have challenges because of the constraints that legislative institutions themselves impose, for example the MPs lack of time to both listening to their constituencies and paying attention to new media projects for participation. This is one of the characteristics that contribute to make the process essentially “one-way”, i.e., the parliament waits more for citizens’ collaboration than search for them because it provided the mechanisms. However, working on new projects as well as evaluating them is a good starting point to better practices.
Isabele Mitozo is PhD candidate in Politics at the Federal University of Paraná, Brazil, and was a visiting researcher at the School of Politics and International Studies of the University of Leeds (2015-16). She is on Twitter: @mitozoIB.